The Graham Weekly Album Review #1169

CD graphic The Beatles: Yellow Submarine Songtrack
by George Graham

(Apple 21481 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/29/99)

Technology marches on, and makes possible things that one could not do before. At the same time, having something newly technically possible does not necessarily mean one should do it. This creates a debate in art, where one has the ability now to alter works of the past, presumably in the name of improvement. This week we have technology applied to some of the most sacrosanct recordings in 20th Century music, those of the Beatles. It's an interesting story with a profound philosophical subtext touching the art of sound, the integrity of a work of art created in a particular time and place, commercial interests, and the artists themselves, who ultimately passed judgement on the results.

A few years ago, a film company executive was frustrated by the poor quality and limited availability of the Beatles Yellow Submarine animated film on home video for his kids. The movie had been tied up in a legal fight over rights, and was not widely available. So he set out to see the film re-released. After the lawyers did their thing for some months, the process of gathering material for the new release was begun, and it was desired that the film and music be brought up to contemporary standards with surround sound.

So eventually, it was decided to re-visit the original music with the goal of remixing it for surround sound. That turned into a major project, the results of which are both the film and a new album of updated mixes of the 15 songs used in the film. The CD is called the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, and it represents another separate mix from the music used in the updated film.

When the Beatles' material was first officially released on CD in the 1980s, their producer George Martin oversaw the projects, with the goal of preserving the original sound as much as possible. With Sir George now retired from producing with his hearing failing, a younger engineer named Peter Cobbin was brought in for this effort, which was done at the same Abbey Road Studios were the originals were recorded.

Now perhaps it might be useful to get a bit technical in explaining how the original recordings were made. In this day and age, 24, 32 or 48-track tape machines are routinely used allowing up to that many parts to be recorded individually, and then mixed together into the final stereo recording. Despite their penchant for experimentation in the studio and the technical brilliance of their recordings such as Sergeant Peppers, for most of their albums Beatles had access only to four-track tape machines. So they would record four parts, then combine those four parts onto a single mono track of another four-track tape machine, and add three more parts. They might even repeat that process again, combining the seven parts onto a single mono track of a third four-track tape, and add more parts. This technique made it impossible to change the relationships between the instruments on the earlier tracks. And although Martin and Abbey Road engineers such as Goeff Emerick did an amazing job at the time, this process also resulted in some parts not being heard very well, or parts originally recorded in stereo coming out in mono. This accounts for some of the quirkiness of the Beatles' recordings.

The original partial 4-track recordings of the Beatles material, made on large 1-inch tape on massive Swiss tape machines, have fortunately remained in excellent condition, and Cobbin went back to those tapes to create the new mixes. The technology now exists to synchronize all those individual parts on that were on separate tapes, something which could not be done in 30 years ago. So it would no longer be necessary to use those partial mono mixes. Cobbin used an interesting combination of some of the original vintage equipment used by the Beatles to re-create some of the same effects, together with the latest 24-bit digital audio technology and computer techniques to create these new mixes.

And in potentially the biggest sacrilege to Beatles purists, Cobbin did not try to re-create the original mixes exactly. Some tracks are quite close to the originals, while others are significantly altered. Perhaps the most obvious difference to the casual listener, is that Cobbin dispensed with the quirky stereo panning that had some of the vocals on one side only. On almost all the new mixes, the vocals are placed squarely in the middle. But now the instrumentation is more spread out, surrounding the vocals. Going back to the those original recordings, and hearing these new mixes, one gains an appreciation of the care and sonic excellence that went into those original sessions, especially when compared to brand new recordings that sound vastly inferior.

The 15 songs on the CD are those that appeared in the British version of the film Yellow Submarine -- the American version did not include Hey Bulldog at the time, while this new version does. The included material dates back to about 1965 with music originally from the Rubber Soul album and on up through four songs from Sgt. Peppers, two from Magical Mystery Tour and a couple that were released on the original Yellow Submarine soundtrack. By the way, the George Martin's orchestral score that was part of the original soundtrack LP are not on this so-called "Songtrack." In general, the earlier material which was recorded on fewer tape tracks benefits less from the new remixes than does the Sgt. Peppers/Magical Mystery Tour-era music.

So how does it sound? As both a long-time Beatles fan and a recording engineer who has always been fascinated with the group's recordings and studio technique, and as one who holds the original recordings with considerable reverence, I am quite pleased. In almost all cases, the result is a great improvement in the clarity, detail and even the so-called "warmth" of the mixes, though I do miss a some of the stereo placement eccentricities of the originals. The big benefit of these new mixes is that you get to hear clearly some of the subtle parts that were hard to discern in the originals.

The title piece, Yellow Submarine, opens the CD. Unless you had just listened to the original <<>> it might be harder to notice much of a difference in the new mix from the old, except that Ringo is in the middle of the stereo placement, and the sound effects and drums are more spread out. The main improvement is in the warmer, brighter sound. <<>>

One of the more dramatic changes comes on Eleanor Rigby. For the first time, we hear the famous double string quartet in stereo, while Paul's vocals come out of the middle, with the background vocals surrounding him. Compared to the original <<>> both the vocals and the strings have greatly improved clarity. <<>>

Because of the significance of the Sergeant Peppers album in the annals of rock history, new mixes of material from that LP might be more cause for concern among Beatle-philes than other songs. The first of the Sgt. Peppers tracks on this new CD is Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Peter Cobbin's mix is rather similar to the original, with a few changes in stereo placement, and a generally more pleasing sound. <<>>

The Sgt. Peppers opening sequence of the title song and With a Little Help from My Friends gets a bigger alteration. The original's quirky stereo placement of the vocals was a trademark. The new version puts both Paul and Ringo doing their respective vocals down the middle and not moving about. But like other of the new mixes one can hear more of the subtleties of the accompaniment. <<>>

The latter half of the second side of the original Magical Mystery Tour LP is in so-called fake stereo, with the lows on side and the highs on the other. One of the songs that appeared that way was Baby You're a Rich Man. The Yellow Submarine Songtrack has a very nice full stereo mix of the piece that is a huge improvement. It casts the song, often considered one of the Fab Four's relative throwaways, in a new light. <<>>

There are a couple of tracks which I do not think are not much of an improvement over the original mixes. Nowhere Man is one of those. It's one of the earlier Beatle recordings, on which Cobbin had fewer separate tracks to work with. <<>>

Likewise, When I'm Sixty Four, one of the best-recorded tracks on the original Sgt. Peppers LP does not really benefit from this remix, which again centers up Paul's vocal.

But for me. the most dramatic improvement comes on All You Need Is Love. The original was partly recorded during an early transatlantic satellite demonstration broadcast, and was never very well mixed. This new version sounds better in almost every way, from the detail of the horn and string parts to a much better sound on Paul's bass. The result is new perspective on an already great song. <<>>

In case you're wondering, Paul, George and Ringo are reported to have all voiced their approval of these new mixes of classic Beatles material, as did Geoff Emerick, one of the original engineers on the session. Peter Cobbin did an outstanding job in bringing new sonic clarity to some of the most famous recordings in all of rock music. Sometimes the result is a subtle change, and at others a dramatic improvement, which can bring a new perspective to the songs, revealing instrumental parts that were hard to hear before. In almost all cases, the result is an improvement.

This whole review has been about the sonic quality of the CD, but I do want to add my nearly weekly quibble about dynamic range on CDs. A fair amount of audio compression was added in the mastering of this CD to make it more uniformly loud. In preparation for this review, I went back and listened to some of the original LPs, not the CDs. Though using electronic means to boost the level of the softer passages and instruments was a part of the Beatles' sound, the original LPs had a better dynamic range than this new CD. Trading some of the that quest for loudness in favor of wider differences between loud and soft would have made this an even better recording. On the positive side is the excellent technical quality of the original recordings and their lack of deterioration over more than 30 years.

The Yellow Submarine Songtrack CD invites the debate between purists on the one hand who think that touching in any way the original recordings of the Beatles is sacrilege, and on the other, those who look for any excuse to re-package famous old material to make more money selling it. In an interview, mix engineer Peter Cobbin acknowledged the likelihood that there would be those who would not appreciate this project. But, he added, for them, the original mixes will always remain available. And that seems like a good solution all around.

(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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